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A radical behaviorist epistemology recognizes the recursivity inherent in behavior analysis: as behaving organisms, we not only take behavior as our subject matter but we are also part of it. Such a naturalization of epistemology, however, is not without its critics. In this article, my aim is to assess some of the arguments that were directed against this approach by the American philosopher Thomas Nagel in his book The Last Word (1997). In particular, I address Nagel's arguments regarding (1) the shortcomings of naturalistic explanations of scientific knowledge and (2) the impossibility of circumventing a realistic, representational epistemology. Regarding (1), I argue that although Nagel is right in arguing that there is no neutral or external viewpoint from which we can understand scientific knowledge, the naturalistic explanation of such knowledge proposed by radical behaviorists is not only possible, but have important practical advantages, insofar as it allows the identification of the variables that control scientific behavior. Regarding (2), I argue that although behavior scientists will frequently talk and write in descriptive ways, the function of descriptive verbal behavior in science is not to represent reality but to coordinate our collective behavior in dealing with the environment. I conclude that instead of avoiding an evolutionary account of rationality, as Nagel suggests, we have every reason to further pursue it. © Association for Behavior Analysis International 2020.


Alexandre Dittrich. Who Has the Last Word? Radical Behaviorism, Science, and Verbal Behavior about Verbal Behavior. Perspectives on behavior science. 2020 Jun;43(2):343-359

PMID: 32647786

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